The much-talked about Indo-US 2+2 dialogue has been postposed yet again. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman were scheduled to meet with their American counterparts, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis, on June 6. But the US has postponed the maiden dialogue citing "unavoidable reasons". This meeting had previously been postponed due to the uncertainty over the confirmation of Pompeo as new Secretary of State, after his predecessor Rex Tillerson got sacked.
Raveesh Kumar, the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, tweeted yesterday that "US @SecPompeo spoke to EAM @SushmaSwaraj a short while ago to express his regret and deep disappointment at the US having to postpone the 2+2 Dialogue for unavoidable reasons". He added that Pompeo had sought Swaraj's "understanding" for the same and that the duo "agreed to identify new mutually convenient dates to hold the Dialogue at the earliest, in India or the US".
To remind you, the format the 2+2 Dialogue had been agreed upon when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met US President Donald Trump for the first time in the White House last June.
Without explaining the reason behind the postponement of the dialogue, the spokesperson asserted that the US-India relationship is "a major priority" for the Trump administration and it looks forward to continuing to "strengthen" the partnership. "India's central role in US national security is enshrined in the President's National Security Strategy, which noted that 'We welcome India's emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner'," said Kumar.
Persons familiar with the issue told The Economic Times that Pompeo is travelling for some key mission around the same time that the 2+2 dialogue was scheduled, which is why it had to be pushed back. Reports suggest that Trump might meet Russian president Vladimir Putin on July 10 to discuss their strained bilateral ties, and Pompeo might well be engaged with that. However, policy circles in Delhi reportedly viewed the decision to postpose the 2+2 dialogue as a sign of slide in Indo-US partnership.
The development certainly comes against the backdrop of strained ties between the two countries. Last week, India announced a plan to raise tariffs on 29 US imports in retaliation for the US decision to include India in its list of countries covered by higher steel and aluminium duties.
According to the daily, it is also understood that India is unwilling to accept US diktat on stopping all oil imports from Iran from November 4. The US has threatened all countries, including India, with the prospect of sanctions if they don't fall in line. India's stand is understandable since Iran is not only India's third-largest oil supplier but also India's gateway to Afghanistan as well as Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan.
Further muddying the waters is India's nearly Rs 40,000 crore deal to procure S-400 Triumf air defence missile systems from Russia. The buzz is that Russia and India are likely to announce the deal before an annual summit between Modi and Putin in October, but if India goes through with the deal it faces impending sanctions from the US under Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The Act, which came into effect in January, mandates the Trump administration to punish entities engaging in significant transaction with the defence or intelligence establishment of Russia.
The decision to postpone the maiden 2+2 dialogue between the two countries has also come as a disappointment for India watchers in the American think-tank community. "The postponement is disappointing," Jeff Smith from Heritage Foundation, a think-tank close to the ruling Republican establishment told PTI.
For Joshua T White, a former Obama administration official, the postponement of the 2+2 talks was "unfortunate and more than a little embarrassing for the US". However, he told PTI that "frankly I'm more worried that the growing cascade of disputes surrounding trade and investment will slowly sap momentum from this very important relationship". White is currently a fellow at the Edwin O Reischauer Center for East Asia Studies at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
Michael Kugelman from the Wilson Center alleged that with Trump at the help of affairs, no US relationship was "foolproof". "Safe to say that US-India relations have taken their biggest tumble in quite some time," he said on Twitter, adding, "This is really big. 2+2 could have been used to reset a relationship experiencing growing tensions on the econ side".(With PTI inputs)